This Week’s Feature: Tricks for Working with Angry Kids

So this post is finding its way to you a little later today than usual because I have found my way down to Connecticut to visit my parents. It is so nice to spend a sunny, early winter day at the home I grew up in. It was also very lovely to spend some time with my dad reading through the piece he has put together for you today. When I first suggested the idea that he write something up for this space he said that he was unsure of how he would write something to fit into this space because he is not working in just one classroom with a set group of kids. However, I feel like the goal of this blog is to simply get ideas out there that work when you work with kids. So he was kind enough to write up the piece you are about to read.

Scott Cohn, has worked as a Psychologist in school settings for over 25 years and has been hugely helpful in providing insight to me as I have started my teaching career. So, without further ado, I hope you enjoy this weeks feature:


Scott Cohn

Clinical and School Psychologist



As a Clinical and School Psychologist, currently working in a middle school environment, I have frequently worked with boys who are considered acting out and angry. Working with angry boys can be a challenge; however, there are some tips and insights that I have found useful. They will likely not work for everyone, but just maybe, could help you. Where to begin?


  1. Angry boys hate to be caught not knowing something. They don’t like their inadequacies exposed. So, when you help them out with information or teacher them something, it’s helpful to say: “Oh, but I bet you knew that already?” to which they will agree that they did.
  2. People either express sadness or anger first, under stress. Most angry boys lead with irritability but there is sadness underneath. It is helpful to remember this and figure out the precursor so that you can get at it. It is not ok to talk about it directly at first. These boys hate it when people tell them how they feel regardless of how obvious it may be. It is usually something very primitive, such as “Why didn’t they love me?” or some other form of abandonment (issues of trust).
  3. Sometimes it is helpful to hand someone the identity you want them to have as a type of replacement for theirs. Said another way, telling someone how thoughtful they are, even if they are not overtly acting that way yet. If they are perceptive or paranoid (on alert for deception) there will be a challenge around possible sarcasm. This is a great inroad to a conversation surrounding when the breakdown of thoughtfulness occurred and what the anger is about. Otherwise, if their boundaries are permeable, like when you take deep breathes around a baby to convince them to calm down or get them to fall asleep, there is a chance there will be an identity transfer and they will see themselves in a new light.
  4. There is a non-willful exchange that occurs between people much like what happens when visiting someone who is weak and/or infirmed. One goes in feeling energized and comes out drained. The other person feels better and invigorated often from the visit. Prepare for the exchange emotionally. Just like with a colicky baby, a parent puts out soothing vibes while the baby screams. At the end of the exchange, the baby is calm, or asleep, and the parent is jangled. Boy’s often use the emotional tone more like music to express themselves instead of their words. This does not invalidate their discomfort and need for understanding.
  5. There are times when someone is interacting with a child who will not talk. Instead of getting frustrated at these times it can be helpful instead, to imagine a baby in the room who is sleeping. This image often helps the adult to believe that there is something growthful and curative about the child’s silence, even if behavior outwardly appears to be passive aggressive or avoidant.
  6. When boy’s call other people hostile pat phrases, that sound rehearsed, they were often called these same remarks by someone in their past. It is possible to get around to asking when they first heard this remark and from whom.
  7. I often ask kids to tell me “When were you just a dumb little 3 year old when you were really 3years old? and 4 when you were really 4 years old? and when did that change? When did you become so aware of the adult world around you? When was the last time you felt like you were the same age as your classmates?” I often ask them to tell me about what they know surrounding household bills, rent payments and other adult stressors. They often know. I ask how old they feel now (how much older than their chronological age) and use a rule of thumb that is they feel 4 years older than their stated age, for example, they also act 4 years younger than their stated age when they tantrum and regress. The therapeutic task becomes one of collapsing the preciousness and getting them to allow you to help them become, act and live, their true age.
  8. As the Psychiatrist, Alice Miller addresses in her writings, people become living symptoms from their developmental path. One acts out, as a form of a living reenactment, of that which was unsolvable. If someone outside of themselves can solve their problem, they learn what they could have done living through their personal chaos.
  9. Mood irritability is a classic symptom of depression in children and adolescents. They experience difficulty sustaining joy and experience little “afterglow” if they do have a good time doing something. This is noticeable, for example, if you took a depressed child to an amusement park. They would appear during the day as having a great time, only to then say on the way to the parking lot that their day was, “okay” or fair. They frequently appear ungrateful and unappreciative of someone’s efforts and as result it is easy to find them unrewarding to do things for.


There is an old story about “potatoness.” The story suggests that a potato thrown in a wet damp dark shed will still throw a shoot that will attempt to grow towards the light. The light in a shed may be on the side where a board is missing. Regardless of its situation, it will try to reach its potential. Now as the story goes, if someone were to lift the shed off, it would very strange and illogical that the shoot is actually growing sideways. Four final points: Timing is everything and working with someone when they are younger is usually better. Have one peripheral support person, outside of the home can often be enough to assist in altering someone’s sense of identity. This can be a grandmother, neighbor, and teacher. Finally, 45 minutes a week of individual time may be twice as much time as someone is communicated with in a concentrated fashion in some homes.


Thank you all for checking in this week and I hope you are all enjoying your weekend. Maybe sunshine will find its way to you too.



One response »

  1. I think these ‘disarming’ techniques could be applied to innumerable situations beyond teenage boys. They seemed to me like a great combination of modeling, empathy and passive resistance. These insights will be incredibly helpful.

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